The first mention of Yule: the Gothic liturgical calendar in the Codex Argenteus

The first mention of “Yule” is to be found in a palimpsest manuscript, perhaps of the the 6th century AD.  A number of Gothic bibles were reused for their parchment at the northern Italian monastery of Bobbio, and one of these contains a fragment of a Gothic calendar of saints’ days as the last but one leaf.  Curiously the literature seems to refer to this as the Codex Ambrosianus A, without ever specifying the shelf-mark at the Ambrosian Library in Milan more precisely.[1]

The calendar was first printed, with Latin translation, by the inevitable Angelo Mai, then prefect of the Ambrosian Library.[2]

An old edition of the calendar may be found at Archive.org here, [3]

Fragment of an ancient Gothic calendar from Codex Ambrosianus A

The actual meaning of these ancient words in a little known language is much debated even today, but for our purposes a quick-and-dirty version of Angelo Mai’s Latin will help us get an idea of what we are looking at.

23.  The sufferings of the martyrs and Fritharic among the Gothic people.

29.  The commemoration of the martyrs who, with Werekan the presbyter and Batwin the minister of the Catholic church were burned among the Gothic people.

… beginning of July .30.

3.  Of King Constantine.

6.  Of Bishop Dorotheus.

15.  Of Philip the Apostle of Hierapolis.

19.  Of the venerable nuns of Beroea, 40 in all.

But Ebbinghaus rendered the second entry as perhaps, “The memory of the martyrs who were with Wereka the priest and Batwins—all that is left of a church full of people—burnt in Gothia”[4].

Likewise “July” is not what subsequent readers have understood.  The “Naubaimbar” or “November” above wasn’t even visible to Mai.  Recently David Laudau has restudied images of the palimpsest and has shown that the word is not there.

I’ve been trying to find out more details, but it is remarkably hard to find your way into the literature.  I can’t find the shelfmarks for the manuscripts.  The key article on the calendar appears to be E. A. Ebbinghaus, “The Gothic Calendar”, General Linguistics 15 (1975); but I can find no evidence of the journal.

David Landau seems to have done a lot of work on this, and especially on the word “jiuleis”.  His home page is here, and includes many PDFs of his articles.  In “The Source of the Gothic Month Name jiuleis and its Cognates”,   Namenkundliche Informationen 95-6 (2009), pp. 239-248, he argues that it cannot mean “Jul” or “Yule”, because no such pre-Christian feast existed.  His source for this is given as Gustav Bilfinger, Untersuchungen iiber die Zeitrechnung der alten Germanen. Vol.2: Das Germanische Julfest, Stuttgart 1901.  The value of this statement is not known to me.  Instead he argues that it derives from “jubilee”.

It would be interesting to know more about this obscure text in an obscure language.

  1. [1]D. Gary Miller, The Oxford Gothic Grammar, Oxford (2019), p.9.  Preview here.
  2. [2]Vlphilae partium ineditarum in Ambrosianis palimpsestis ab Angelo Maio, 1819.  Online here, p.26 f.
  3. [3]W. Streitberg, Die gotische Bibel, 1908.  The calendar is on p.472-4.
  4. [4]Ernst A. Ebbinghaus, “The Second Entry of the Gothic Calendar”, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 77 (1978), 183-7. JSTOR

Bede on Yule

In De ratione temporum (On the reckoning of time), chapter 15, the Venerable Bede lists the English months:

In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other nations’ observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon.  Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months] take their name from the moon, for the moon is called mona and the month monath.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March, Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called.  They began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 Dec.], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord.  That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, ‘mother’s night’, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.

The months of Giuli derive their name from the day when the sun turns back [and begins] to increase, because one of [these months] precedes [this day], and the other follows. … [1]

‘Giuli’ is Yule, I believe.  Note how it is a two-month month.

 

  1. [1]Bede, The reckoning of time, translated … by Faith Wallis.  Liverpool, 2004, p.53-4

Wondering about Yule

I was just wondering about “Yule”, and what is really known about it, what the ancient/medieval sources are.  Generally we hear jeering about it at Christmas, and that’s it. 

A look at the web suggests that no-one online knows anything about the subject.  Certainly those who talk about it don’t seem troubled as to what, if any, evidence there might be. 

It might be interesting to research and put online the primary sources, whatever they are.  When I feel more like it.